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The President's Perplexing Environmental Priorities Part 1: Nuclear Power

by Mark W. Hibben


The New Energy Future

Early this year President Obama made key decisions on nuclear energy and offshore oil development that left me wondering if this was really the man I had voted for in November 2008. Even now, one can visit the site and find the sound bites on energy policy that featured so prominently in his campaign:

Chart a new energy future:

President Obama has a comprehensive plan to chart a new energy future by embracing alternative and renewable energy, ending our addiction to foreign oil, addressing the global climate crisis and creating millions of new jobs that can’t be shipped overseas.

Invest in clean, renewable energy:

To achieve our goal of generating 25 percent of our energy from renewable sources by 2025, we will make unprecedented investments in clean, renewable energy – solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal power.

Fight climate change:

We will invest in energy efficiency and conservation, two sure-fire ways to decrease deadly pollution and drive down demand. And we will hold special interests accountable as we finally work to address climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects.

There’s no mention whatsoever of new nuclear power plants or new offshore oil drilling.   However, in a position paper released during the Presidential campaign, Obama did leave open the door for new nuclear power plants and new offshore drilling, but with important conditions that certainly have not been met:

On nuclear energy:

“It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.”

I take this as a statement that the problem of nuclear waste storage, which hasn’t been solved, would need to be before going forward with new plants, but unfortunately the word “addressed” is subject to interpretation.

On domestic oil production:

“But U.S. oil and gas production plays an important role in our domestic economy and remains critical to prevent global energy prices from climbing even higher. There are several key opportunities to support increased U.S. production of oil and gas that do not require opening up currently protected areas.

A “Use it or Lose It” Approach to Existing Leases. Oil companies have access to 68 million acres of land, over 40 million offshore, which they are not drilling on. Drilling in open areas could significantly increase domestic oil and gas production. Barack Obama and Joe Biden will require oil companies to diligently develop these leases or turn them over so that another company can develop them.”

This appears to be an even stronger statement of a precondition that oil companies fully explore and exploit existing offshore areas before new ones would be made available. 

The President’s recent announcements essentially overturn both positions:  the Federal Government will provide $8B in loan guarantees for two new reactors to be built in Georgia, and the Government will make available oil exploration leases for large tracts of coastal waters off the Gulf coast and Southern Atlantic coast.  No preconditions whatsoever.  Why the changes?  More importantly, are they justified?  This week’s article will examine Obama’s policy change on nuclear power.  Next week I will examine his fossil fuel development and conservation policies.

The Nuclear Option

In fairness, it must be pointed out that the President is not so much taking new action on nuclear power development as declining to arrest events already unfolding.  The announced loan guarantees are the first award of $18.5 billion in loan guarantees authorized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. But the President has also proposed tripling the amount available, and the Department of Energy is negotiating with energy companies pursuing three other projects in South Carolina, Maryland and Texas.  These would be the first nuclear plant starts in 30 years.  Some of the motivation for new nuclear plant starts must reside in the fact that in about 18 years, nuclear plants will start to be retired.  If new nuclear plants don’t replace the old ones, then carbon emissions could increase. 

A new nuclear plant takes about 5 years to complete, not including time spent obtaining the necessary licenses to build and operate the plant. Obama did not completely lose sight of his original precondition of a solution to the problem of nuclear waste storage, but it was relegated to a subject for study by a bi-partisan commission of politicians and nuclear experts.  Hardly a strong commitment to find a solution.

Nuclear power generation in the US is a classic example of an industry where the true economic and environmental costs of the industry have been essentially hidden from consumers by regulatory decisions and non-decisions.  These costs will eventually be borne by tax payers, since the corporations involved have been essentially exempted from bearing the cost of a permanent solution to the waste disposal problem.  Here’s the problem in a nutshell:  Every 3-5 years, the nuclear fuel in a reactor has to be replaced. 

The expended fuel is still dangerously radioactive and physically hot.  For a period of at least 10 years, the spent fuel sits in pools of water on the plant site, slowly cooling down and losing some radioactivity.  After ten years, the fuel can be moved to other storage, such as dry steel casks, but it’s still dangerously radioactive without the container around it.  Whatever the form of storage, almost all the spent fuel that has been generated by the 105 operating nuclear plants in the US remains on the plant sites.  There’s simply no other place to put it.  There are more than 50,000 metric tons of spent fuel in storage in the US.

It’s the Plutonium. . .

Nuclear scientists like to point out that after 40-50 years of storage, radiation emissions are reduced to just 0.1 % of the initial level when the fuel was removed from the reactor.  This reduction is due to radioactive decay of relatively short-lived species in the fuel.  However, the spent fuel is still not safe to be around without shielding, and in one respect, it’s actually more dangerous.  The residual radioactivity is due in large part to a species that is not short lived: plutonium.  Plutonium is one of the elements (along with uranium) that can be used to make nuclear bombs.  The plutonium concentration in the spent fuel is not great, about 1%, but it’s enough to be attractive to nuclear terrorists since it can now be extracted more easily than when the fuel was first removed from the reactor.  Why is the plutonium in the fuel?  It’s produced by nuclear reactions over the course of operation of the reactor.  The half life of plutonium is about 24,000 years (for the most common isotope), so it represents a very long term storage and security problem.  In addition to being radioactive, it’s also chemically toxic, and highly chemically reactive in its pure metallic state.  Nasty stuff, and not the kind of thing to just leave lying around.  For thousands of years.   In addition to the 500 tons of plutonium that reside in spent fuel, there are another estimated 500 tons of weapons-grade plutonium in the warheads and stockpiles of the nuclear powers.  On the basis of chemical toxicity alone, the weapons grade plutonium is enough to kill about 2 billion people.

It’s the plutonium that makes long term storage of spent nuclear fuel so problematic.  How does one guarantee the security of something that might outlast human civilization, let alone the government of the United States? 

Yucca Mountain was supposed to be the answer to the long term storage of nuclear waste in the United States. A volcanic geological formation in Southern Nevada, Yucca Mountain was established as a nuclear waste repository by the Yucca Mountain Development Act of 2002.  About $9 billion have been spent on Yucca, which is now considered non-viable for waste storage by the Obama Administration.  Given the impasse on long-term storage, how can the Administration approve new nuclear power plants?

Enter Dr. Chu

Steven Chu is a Nobel prize winning physicist who is well known for his advocacy of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel electric power generation in order to combat global warming.   President Obama selected him to head the Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear energy production among other things.  The extent of Dr. Chu’s influence on current nuclear policy can be seen from a position paper issued in August 2008 by the Directors of the DOE’s National Laboratories, to which Chu was a signatory as the head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  The paper declared nuclear energy essential to meet the nation’s energy needs while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and called for expansion of the reactor “fleet”.

Acknowledging that the problem of nuclear waste management hadn’t been solved, the paper called for an aggressive R & D program “on advanced reactors, reprocessing, waste management and fuel fabrication concepts”.   “Sustainable” is a buzz word that occurs repeatedly in the paper, as in “a sustainable approach to used fuel disposition and waste management.” 

The authors walk the fine line that research proposals necessarily must walk, to depict the problems associated with nuclear resurgence as serious enough to warrant research investment while not so serious as to appear intractable.  Clearly, the authors identified global warming as a politically popular way to motivate nuclear research, which has been at the core of the DOE national labs since the beginning of the atomic age.  The key thrust of their proposal is spent fuel reprocessing as a way to achieve a “sustainable closed fuel cycle”.  As the reader can imagine, fuel reprocessing represents significant safety, environmental, and national security challenges.  So much so that reprocessing of commercial spent fuel hasn’t been pursued in this country at all, although there have been efforts in Europe and Japan with some success.  In reprocessing, the remaining uranium and plutonium are chemically extracted, then purified and mixed with fresh fuel to form Mixed Oxide fuel (MOX), which can be used in commercial power plants.  The use of MOX fuel could eventually use up the stockpiles of excess plutonium, both weapons grade and the residual in the stored spent fuel.  The authors also pointed out that such fuel recycling would greatly increase the amount of available fuel for the US “fleet”.  The paper advocates research into reprocessing, while side-stepping the issue of economic viability.  Presumably, much of the research would go to trying to improve the efficiency of reprocessing, which has always been considered to yield fuel at higher cost than the mining and refining of natural ore.

The President’s Take-Away

While President Obama seems to have heard the first part of the message in calling for new nuclear plant starts, there isn’t much evidence that he heard the second part of the message to invest aggressively in reprocessing and waste management research. 

The President’s priorities are perfectly understandable as a politician responding to the exigencies of the moment, the need to increase US energy independence while reducing green house gases, and the need to stimulate job creation in a jobless recovery.  Unfortunately, the President has his priorities exactly backwards: dealing with the waste problem should be his first priority, not creating of more of it.  The position paper doesn’t come out and state categorically that long term open ended storage of plutonium contaminated waste and spent fuel is non-viable, but the shift of emphasis towards reprocessing is unmistakable.   Extracting the plutonium and uranium from the spent fuel makes the storage problem much more tractable.  Instead of worrying about the waste for thousands of years (totally impractical, I believe), we would only have to safeguard it for about a century, depending on how completely the long-lived actinides such as plutonium had been extracted.  That’s still a big deal, but at least there is reasonable expectation that the government of the United States will still be around a century from now.

I believe we have a moral and social obligation to perform spent fuel reprocessing for this reason.  So if we are going to have to do this anyway, why not build more nuclear power plants?  Here, it’s just economics.  It’s not clear what the cost of reprocessing is.  That’s what we need the research for, among other things, to try to determine if reprocessing can really lead to a “sustainable” nuclear fuel cycle.  In my view, sustainable means that there is a net cost benefit, when all the true costs of nuclear power are factored in.  Put simply, the cost of generating fuel, building and regulating nuclear power plants, and the cost of storing and reprocessing waste, has to be less than the cost of generating the same amount of power by another competing means that might be considered environmentally acceptable.   It isn’t obvious that nuclear power always has a cost advantage compared to other environmentally acceptable generating approaches.  There may be instances where alternative forms of power generation (such as wind or solar) are more cost effective.  If we build more nuclear plants only to find that the plants are cost disadvantaged, then we end up on a nuclear treadmill that only drains our economy rather than strengthening it as we struggle to keep up with the waste disposal problem.  The true cost of nuclear waste disposal has yet to be determined, and until it is, commiting to new nuclear power plants is unwise.  This assumes of course, that we won’t be utterly irresponsible and do nothing about the waste.

  • 1.
    Energy Future
  • 2.
    Climate Change
  • 3.
    Nuclear Option
  • 4.
    Hidden Costs
  • 5.
    It's the Plutonium
  • 6.
    Yucca Mountain
  • 7.
    Doctor Chu
  • 8.
    Take Away
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